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The Improv in Ybor City serves up comedy, cocktails

Of all the comedy specials out there, the one I'm most fascinated by is I'm Telling You For the Last Time, Jerry Seinfeld's 1998 HBO performance, taped just months after his groundbreaking sitcom aired its series finale.

In the special, Seinfeld runs through a set of his trademark observational humor with the intent of retiring all of it, forever, after the performance.

A world-famous comic retiring dozens of polished bits, honed over the course of many years, is interesting. What's even more interesting is Seinfeld's 2002 follow-up, Comedian. It's a documentary directed by Christian Charles that features a starting-from-scratch Seinfeld, testing new routines in tiny clubs, getting feedback from comedian friends, and — crucially — bombing horribly at times.

It's this look into the formative stages of a stand-up act that I find especially compelling. To see a routine being worked out in real time, with all of the messiness and awkwardness that can accompany the process, is a side of comedy that you won't often find at your average club.

Tampa's most famous comedy club, however, has just such a thing. The Improv — Ybor City's branch of the iconic chain — is known for its big-name comedy acts, but it also hosts an open-mic night on Wednesdays that folks interested in the less-polished side of comedy will want to check out.

The Wednesday night show is Comedy In the Raw, featuring a first-come, first-served lineup of amateurs, working local comics and the occasional touring pro. As with most open mics, you're guaranteed a mixed bag, but the show at the Improv is run tightly and professionally, and there's lots of participation.

Comedy In the Raw is held in the front lounge, which happens to have a pretty decent bar, as well as a full food menu. If you're a night owl, it's a great spot for dinner, drinks and a show — no cover, and no drink minimum. Otherwise, you can grab dinner beforehand and stay for drinks and live comedy.

The drink list is focused on cocktails, though there are beers and wines available as well. Try the specialty drinks with corny names — Rubber Chicken, Banana Peel — that come in souvenir glasses, or take your pick of frozen drinks, coffee cocktails, martini-style drinks, or shots. If you're ordering shots, don't make a huge scene about it like the group that was there when I visited. It's tough for the comic to perform when there's a group of six people in the back disrupting the show.

Of course, the Improv is deservedly well-known for its headliners in the main room, and you should absolutely be sure to check out a show there as well. The lounge bar is open before shows, in case you want to pregame before grabbing seats. You can still order food and drinks in the club proper.

If you're a comedy fan who's even remotely interested in the process, you should check out your local open mic. If you're near the Improv, then even better, as Comedy In the Raw is perhaps the most well-run open mic in the area.

The sets won't be as smooth as the kind you'll see on the main stage during a ticketed event, but to me, that's the fun part. Even Seinfeld bombed a few times while reinventing himself in Comedian. These are sets where aspiring comics can find out what works and what doesn't, and occasionally it will be great. Add a well-stocked bar and full lounge to kick back in, and you're all set.

— Contact Justin Grant at Follow @WordsWithJG

the Improv

1600 E Eighth Avenue C-112, Tampa. (813) 864-4000.

The vibe: A local comedy club with a lounge bar featuring open-mic stand-up nights weekly.

Food: Appetizers and salads, $5.99-$13.99; entrées, $9.99-$23.99; desserts, $6.99-$9.99.

Booze: Beer, wine and liquor. Beer, $4.95-$6.50; wine, $5.50-$8.50 by the glass and $24-$39 by the bottle; liquor, $6.75-$8.95.

Specialty: The cocktail list could easily pass at a beach bar, with a wide variety of frozen cocktails, daiquiris, margaritas, fruity concoctions and colorful martini-style drinks. I prefer to keep it simple, with the Grown Up Cherry Coke. This is your basic rum and coke, but it uses Bacardi Torched Cherry, which is flavored with Acerola cherries and "torched" aloe. (Don't ask me; I don't know either.) Also check out the whisky selection — there are a few surprisingly cheap, quality options in the mix.

Hours: Vary based on the entertainment calendar — check the website or call for details. Comedy in the Raw is at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, and seating is first-come, first-served; it's recommended to arrive at least 30 minutes before the shows starts.

The Improv in Ybor City serves up comedy, cocktails 03/30/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2016 2:38pm]
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